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Blair Horner: The Former Speaker Is Convicted

When former Assembly Speaker Silver was convicted of corruption on all counts, there was also a second conviction: Albany’s way of conducting the public’s business.  From the court proceedings’ first days, it was clear that Albany’s ethics were also on trial.

In fact, Silver’s attorneys made that very argument: "It's impossible, absolutely impossible, for a member of the Assembly to do his or her job and to go out, make laws . . . and not have some form of conflict of interest."

Now a jury has concluded that using the powers of a lawmaker’s office for private gain is illegal.

The heart of the case against Silver was that he used his powerful position as Assembly Speaker to exchange governmental favors for money, adding $4 million to his personal wealth.  The former Speaker is not the first, nor the last, to face these charges, but he is the highest ranking to be convicted.

So far, Albany’s political leadership has been whistling past the political graveyard, hoping that this court case would simply go away.  By ignoring calls for immediate action, Governor Cuomo and the current Assembly and Senate leadership have essentially argued that existing laws are good enough.  Inaction speaks louder than words.

But with the conviction of the Assembly Speaker, the conviction of the former Deputy Senate Majority Leader, and the ongoing court proceedings against the former Senate Majority Leader, the governor cannot hope that the public demand for action will melt away.

Here are four immediate steps to begin to rebuild trust in Albany:

1.  The governor must convene a special legislative session devoted to ethics.  90 percent of New Yorkers believe that Albany’s ethics are too weak.  A special session forces lawmakers to return to Albany to take up an important issue.  It is far harder to ignore reforms under the withering glare of focused public attention.  The governor must act this month.

2.  Lawmakers’ outside income must be limited.  A consistent pattern from the convictions against sitting lawmakers has been their use of public office for private gain.  The vast majority of legislators either do not have outside jobs, or have ones that pay very little—it’s a small minority that has too often gotten into legal trouble.  The Congress has significant limits on outside income, Albany should too.

3.  Close the LLC “loophole.”  Limited liability companies (LLCs) can make much larger campaign contributions than other businesses.  As a result, they have become a honey pot of political money for candidates.  LLCs are often used by wealthy real estate developers and who show up frequently in Albany’s wheeling and dealing – large LLC contributors were key witnesses in the Silver case and are part of the ongoing proceedings against the former Senate Majority Leader.  New York should close the honey pot and treat LLCs like other businesses for the purposes of campaign contributions. 

4.  Overhaul the state ethics watchdogs.  New Yorkers spend millions of dollars for state ethics watchdogs, yet it has consistently been federal prosecutors who have brought justice to Albany.  U.S. Attorney PreetBharara shouldn’t have to be the “Sheriff of Albany,” New Yorkers should get their money’s worth out of state agencies.  These agencies should be independent and functional – neither of which they are now.

Of course, more will need to be done to make Albany the nation’s leader in ethics, not its punch line.  But by taking those four steps, New Yorkers would have confidence that the governor and the legislature are beginning to clean up Albany. The next move should come from governor.  

Blair Horner is the Legislative Director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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